Ancient Japan was our destination for the last Saturday of September. Wil, Liam and I used the JR Chuo Train Line and the Ginza Subway Line to travel back to 7th century Japan for a visit to Sensojii temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa’s neighborhood.
Modern Tokyo was on full display when we emerged from the subway station. We could see at a distance the Tokyo Skytree, Japan’s tallest structure, as well as the Asahi Beer Hall, a brewery’s headquarters built in 1989 to represent a beer glass. (That golden comet is supposed to represent beer froth.)
Just a block or so away, though, we entered the past by passing through the Kaminari Gate. The original gate was built in 942 although the one we saw on Saturday is a 20th century reconstruction.
The gate stands at the entrance to Nakamise, a shopping street lined by tiny shops selling Japanese wares: candy, stationary, fabric, toys, jewelry and so forth. The street is 274 yards long: At its opposite end is another ancient gate, the Hozomon Gate. Like its sister gate at the far end of the street, it originally dates to 942 but has been rebuilt over the centuries after fires. It was last burnt during a World War II air raid in 1945.
We walked through the gate into the courtyard facing the temple’s main hall. Later, I read that it originally dates back to the shogun era. It, too, was destroyed during World War II but was reconstructed. This version features titanium roof tiles.
We took a closer look inside the main hall, where many Japanese were offering up prayers, and I refrained from taking pictures. It feels invasive to take pictures of people as they pray and I’m not sure what the rules are. The space was crowded and Liam was fascinated by the ritual praying. When he asked to join in, I pulled coins out of my purse and together we tossed them into the coin box. We bowed, as others around us were doing, then pressed our hands together briefly in prayer.
Outside, we wandered the lovely grounds of the temple for a while and let the foreign-ness of the place wash over us. There were a lot of images of Japan floating around in my head before moving here about how this country would look and feel. Asakusa is one of those places that embodies many of those images, thanks to its giant temple with a soaring roof, the five-story pagoda, the kimono-clad women in the crowd and the red-lacquered buildings featuring Buddha statues.
We spent the rest of the day wandering in and out of the stores in the area. In addition to the Nakamise, most of the surrounding streets are shop-filled. We did our bit for the local economy by purchasing chopsticks (decorated with samurai!) and three prints that are now framed and hanging in my home office. Some of the streets were covered arcades, some were narrow alleyways, and others were wide, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares.
We also took the time, as most tourists do, to take a few pictures of ourselves. We may have spent the day exploring Japan’s past but we documented it with all the technological fervor of the present.